Fighting Without Fatalities

Contra Steven Pinker, political scientist Tanisha Fazal argues that war is not necessarily less common than it used to be. Rather, she says, improvements in battlefield medicine simply mean that more people are surviving:

These medical advances have several implications for scholarship and policy. Major academic data sets on war and armed conflict typically use a battle death threshold to determine which cases count as wars/armed conflict. This battle death threshold is constant over the time period covered by these data sets. But a conflict that produced 1,000 battle deaths in 1820 will likely produce many fewer overall casualties (where casualties, properly understood, include the dead and wounded) than a conflict with 1,000 battle deaths today. In other words, the events scholars (including this one) are comparing may not be as similar as we think they are.

Improvements in medical care in conflict zones also hold important implications for policy. While the recent Veterans Affairs Department scandal was surely driven by an aging population of Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, it seems at least possible that pressure on the VA system also emerged from unexpectedly large numbers of returned wounded coming home with a new set of injuries and illnesses. The widespread use of personal protective equipment in the U.S. military, for example, has saved many lives, but surviving soldiers are more likely to come home with traumatic brain injuries, severe facial disfigurement, or as amputees. More broadly, our thinking about casualties and the costs of war has tended to focus on the dead rather than the wounded, while the wounded are growing in number. Medical advances in conflict zones are a positive development, but one that will not be fully realized until we recognize that both the wounded and the dead “count” as casualties.